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David Epstein

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Thanks to negativity bias — our propensity to remember bad things more than good ones (ahem, spousal criticism) — we all have a visceral memory of a wretched day at work. The teacher who gave a student a high-five before noticing the kid has pink eye; the programmer who realized halfway through her Soylent that she’d left her laptop on the Google bus; the journalist who learned that his job will be eliminated by reading about it in a competing publication. #yesalljournalists. According to a Buzzfeed investigation, for David Reifschneider, a former warehouse manager at food startup Blue Apron, that day was Aug. 26, 2015. It involved three police visits — one for a worker who said he planned to shoot his manager, another for a guy who groped a co-worker, and a third when the groper threatened the person who fired him — as well as the conclusion of a two-week inspection by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health that resulted in nine violations for unsafe working conditions. To make matters worse, it was a Wednesday!! Reifschneider told Buzzfeed: “It’s not what happens on a typical day in a typical warehouse.” Ya don’t say, Dave … but, according to Buzzfeed, subpar days were par for the course as Blue Apron scrambled to upsize (is that a word?) its supply chain. The young company mixed a dash of health code problems with two heaping tablespoons of safety violations and added two cups of disgruntled workers. And stir. Your five Ws:

What?

… is Blue Apron? A startup that ships pre-prepared ingredients for home cooking, and which has raised $193.8 million in venture capital, according to Buzzfeed. The article notes that Blue Apron has had to grow incredibly rapidly, with the warehouse in Richmond, California, mushrooming from a few dozen employees in 2014 to more than 1,000 today. Buzzfeed reported that the company “had to rapidly hire a massive unskilled workforce, bringing jobs to a part of the Bay Area that has been largely left behind by Silicon Valley,” which sounds great. But Buzzfeed adds that “documents and interviews suggest that it was unprepared to properly manage and care for those workers, and as a result has suffered a rash of health and safety violations.”

What else?

On the bright side, Buzzfeed noted, in the 38 months since Blue Apron’s Richmond facility opened, the Richmond PD has only received two calls about weapons. Ok, ok. And three for bomb threats. Hmmm, alright. And seven for assaults. Ok, WTF? “Police captains have met twice with Blue Apron to discuss the frequency of calls to the police,” Buzzfeed writes … I wonder how those conversations go; I bet it starts with small talk about the 49ers, and then moves to that incident last year when a Blue Apron employee bit a colleague. Aha, but it was only after punching the victim “several times in the head,” according to the police report, so it’s possible this was all a misunderstanding and the employees were just doing a Tyson v. Holyfield reenactment. Hey, save it for after work, people.

What else?

All in all, the Buzzfeed investigation makes Blue Apron’s Richmond warehouse sound like a cross between Wells Fargo’s pressure for results and … I can’t think of any analogy to bagging cilantro for $12 an hour or “assembling boxes in a warehouse kept at a temperature below 40 degrees.” One worker described putting honey or small peppers in little bags in conditions that were “cold — cold as hell.” An obvious reference to Dante’s portrayal of Satan’s icy abode. But again, could be a misunderstanding; research shows that cold indoor temperatures activate brown fat and may help combat obesity. What can I say, I’m having a very glass-full day. Although if I were a Blue Apron worker, I’d probably be breaking that glass on a bar and trying to stab somebody with it. But don’t call the cops again, they’ve already given us a talking-to about calling.

Why is this unusual?

I mean, interview enough people at any job and there will be complaints. According to Buzzfeed, some of those interviewed said that working at the warehouse “wasn’t so bad.” But, “every one of them — even those who mostly liked the job — recalled violence or threats of violence, visits from the police, injuries, high turnover, unfair treatment, or a combination of the above.” In a somewhat confusingly placed quote in the story, one “former team lead” says, “I enjoy jobs where things are on fire more than ones where I’m sitting around … But there were times when it was just horrible.” Given negativity bias, and the lead up to this quote in the story, it took me a few seconds to stop picturing a manager jumping with joy while the warehouse burned to the ground.

What did Blue Apron have to say?

The company didn’t allow Buzzfeed to interview an executive, but in a statement reiterated its intent to create “the best possible workplace experience for all of our employees,” and its pride in “bringing families across the country together over delicious, home-cooked meals.” Overall, the portrait that comes through in the article is of a company that struggled to ramp up the supply chain at an insane pace, while trying not to waste inventory. That’s tricky, especially as the company became too big to send someone to Whole Foods to buy grub when they ran out, because apparently they used to do that. Which, honestly, I find heartening. The glass half-empty part of me wouldn’t have been surprised if they pulled some grass from the parking lot and called it kale.

They Said It

“It was crazy…Your hair’s on fire and you can’t keep up.” —Sara Custer, a former head of West Coast operations for Blue Apron, in yet another curiously ablaze quote.


Tweet of the Week

I desperately want to know how the consulting firm arrived at $39.35

(h/t @charlesornstein)

Additional research by Kate Brown.

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